No matter what they tell us
No matter what they do
No matter what they teach us
What we believe is true…
ICICI Bank’s executive director, V. Vaidyanathan, is learning the guitar these days. This Boyzone song is one of the few that he has been practising whenever he finds time between playing golf, attending board meetings, growing the bank’s booming retail business and running the Mumbai marathon.
As we settle down at Dublin, the bar at ITC Grand Central Sheraton, for a drink, Vaidyanathan hums a few lines of R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly.
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly…
“I really believe that I can fly,” Vaidyanathan says, ordering a small single malt. He does not look tired after a long day in office, preparing for the next day’s board meeting at Jodhpur. At 39, he is the youngest board member of ICICI Bank.
“You know what I mean when I say I can fly… I want to make the most of life. There are so many things to do. I sleep very little and pack my day as much as possible,” he says, nibbling a chilli pepper crispy. By this time, I know why ICICI Bank’s retail business has been growing at a phenomenal pace.
In 2000, when Vaidyanathan joined ICICI Bank leaving his first job at Citi, the bank’s retail business had 100 employees and a book of Rs400 crore. Today, 28,000 people are involved in India’s largest private sector bank’s retail business, which is as big as Rs1.2 lakh crore and accounts for more than 65% of the bank’s total business.
How has he managed to grow this business, I ask. Vaidyanathan gives credit to his deputies, the heads of mortgages, auto loans and credit-card business, and then lays his trump card on the table, “I make them believe they are the owners of the organization. When you are the owner, you give your best.”
With the rise in interest rates, does he see retail loans growing at the same speed? Over the last one year, ICICI Bank has raised its home-loan rate at least six times. Vaidyanathan makes a mild protest, saying the bank has not raised the loan as many times, but admits that the average home-loan rate has gone up by about three percentage points over the last one year—from 8% to 11%. “This will slow down the growth. We have been growing at 35%. The growth rate will come down to 20-25%, but there will not be any drastic cut in demand. There is a shortage of 35 million homes,” he says.
After passing out from Birla Institute of Technology, Vaidyanathan joined Citibank and worked at various departments, ranging from sales to credit, collections and even phone banking. He was a campus recruitment at Citi. Why did he quit Citi, I ask him rather bluntly. His answer is even more blunt. “I took six months to make up my mind. Finally, what attracted me to ICICI Bank was stock options.”
His candid answer encourages me to ask him what he does with so much money. Once again, he is quite forthcoming. “I spend today what I will earn tomorrow. In 1993, I bought my first car when I had Rs10,000 in my pocket. I am not a person who will wait for years to see the returns on his stocks growing multi-fold. I sell stocks and take holidays.”
As he is not willing to go for a refill, even after claiming that he parties hard, we order spicy tandoori aloo. We discuss the issues he is likely to manage in the retail business in the coming years. An important challenge, according to him, is tackling consumer activism. “Anybody who is not happy for any reason, reaches out to the media, and newspapers and television channels, hungry for news, take up the issue aggressively. We need to carry the market along with us. I always give the benefit of the doubt to my customers. If somebody says he did not clear his credit-card outstandings because he did not receive the bill, I say fine, let’s waive the penalty. As a matter of principle, I don’t fight for the last penny on any deal. I leave something on the table and make sure that it’s a win-win deal for both my bank and my customer,” he says.
Vaidyanathan also believes that it’s high time banks moved to the next model of retail banking. “We should not fall in love with what we create. We must go for the next wave, that is selling retail loans real time,” he says, eating the spicy tandoori aloo. “So far, we have depended on data and looking at the past, and then we try to predict the future behaviour of a customer. For instance, if a customer bought a small car three years back and his bank account shows a healthy balance, we know that he will go for a big car. Now we need to react instantly. We need to react to every bank transaction and every purchase at electrifying speed. That is possible. We are working on it,” Vaidyanathan says.
He should know about speed. Every Sunday morning, he runs 24km from Worli Seaface to the National Centre for Performing Arts and back to Worli Seaface, in two hours and 45 minutes. He ran the Mumbai Marathon, 42km, in January, but missed his target. “I was hoping to finish it in about five hours, but took 28 minutes more,” he says, finishing his first and only drink this evening.
Now I ask him the obvious question. Will he succeed K.V. Kamath at ICICI Bank? Kamath has no retirement age, but he will complete 15 years at the bank in 2010 and may not continue beyond that. For the first time, I see Vaidyanathan groping for words and trying to come up with a diplomatic answer. “ICICI Bank is full of talented people and it’s up to the board to decide on Kamath’s successor. For the time being, my aim is to learn new things and understand different businesses,” he says. As we get up to leave, I hear him humming I Believe I Can Fly.
After leaving the hotel, I get a long SMS from Vaidyanathan, which says, “Dear Tamal, you did not ask me about my inspiration. My family. I love my wife. And my father is my boss at home.”
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